Sunshine in the Forecast for Maryland Government

by Evan Isaacson

Spring is here in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which means plenty of sunshine ahead, and not just in the weather.  Several important government transparency actions taken by the Maryland General Assembly before it adjourned the 2015 legislative session a few weeks ago will provide Marylanders with greater access to state records and shed new light on compliance with environmental goals. 

First and foremost, Marylanders for Open Government spearheaded an effort to address longstanding problems facing concerned citizens, stakeholder groups, and the press in obtaining public information in Maryland, culminating the most significant reform of the Public Information Act (PIA) since its enactment in 1970.  The new law establishes a new compliance board to hear complaints regarding overcharging of fees for PIA requests and sets out a relatively swift timetable for the resolution of complaints.  The law also creates a Public Access Ombudsman, appointed by the Attorney General, who will help resolve complaints between PIA applicants and custodians over the denial of inspection of records, among other issues.  The also law requires a response within 10 working days if a custodian believes that it will take that long to produce a record and, upon denial, to provide an explanation for the denial and a description of the undisclosed record to allow the applicant to understand the legal basis for the denial.  Finally, the law also requires the Attorney General to submit interim and final reports, in consultation with stakeholders, on how to improve the PIA law and process.  So, beginning October 1 of this year, consider whether and how the PIA process is changing and what additional change is needed.  CPR will be keeping a close eye on how the PIA process improves this fall and, particularly, the continued secrecy over agricultural nutrient management plans.

Although the important agriculture transparency provisions in the PIA bill were struck before passage, the 2015 session did see other significant progress for curtailing pollution from the agricultural sector.  After years of delay – and numerous layers of compromise – the Maryland Department of Agriculture, working with the Governor, General Assembly, and a diverse set of stakeholders, finally proposed Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT) regulations that seem headed for final adoption.  Although we have seen four previous proposals killed on their way to adoption (including one after adoption!), the current proposal garnered enough support from both sides of the issue by creating a very gradual seven-year transition to full implementation of the PMT, with options to extend implementation if a new committee established by the regulation projects insufficient capacity to handle manure under the next stage of PMT transition.  Although this proposal is significantly less stringent than previous ones, the regulations will require the PMT to be fully implemented in Maryland several years before the 2025 deadline under the Bay TMDL.  Importantly, the new PMT Transition Advisory Committee must be convened this year, so keep an eye out for future meetings, new data, and other opportunities to engage this key group.

Another product of compromise coming out of this legislative session was the truly bipartisan and bicameral effort to revamp Maryland’s local watershed protection and restoration programs and the associated (“rain tax”) stormwater remediation fees.  Several attempts to repeal these programs were rejected before the introduction of a bill that repeals only the mandate to levy fees, but otherwise maintains and strengthens the local programs.  The lengthy bill overhauls the law governing the financing of large federal stormwater (MS4) permits but, for purposes of this post, the most important aspect of the bill is the substantial enhancement of public oversight of local stormwater management and financing efforts in Maryland.

Rather than requiring the submission of a biennial report with limited information on the collection and use of local fees, the bill requires annual reports on all funds raised for stormwater management, plus any projects implemented with those funds.  The bill also requires a new biennial financial assurance report with projected annual revenues and costs needed over a five-year period for MS4 permit compliance, as well as information on all local stormwater projects.  Financial assurance plans must have hearings before local governing bodies and must be posted to the Maryland Department of the Environment’s website.  This provides significant opportunities for public oversight of MS4 permit compliance within the 10 largest jurisdictions in Maryland and access to a substantial amount of information that previously was not readily available.  Whatever one thinks of the outcome of this legislative compromise, it was a victory for transparency and accountability of local stormwater financing and management activities.  In a series of future posts, CPR will be sifting through all of this new information and providing updates on the performance of each of the 10 jurisdictions as they seek to finally come into compliance with their permit obligations. 

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